When Does a Black Join the Middle Class?

Ralph Ellison

January 29, 1975

Some controversial statistics were released last year by the U.S. Bureau of the Census purporting to show that, by a narrow margin, the majority of Afro-Americans are now middle-income.

My concern is that, in the case of Afro-Americans, middle-income must not be con-fused with middle-class. If black leaders make this error, misled by statisticians and opinion makers, black Americans may never transcend the valueless and directionless void in which we now find ourselves.

The distinction between middle-income and middle-class is more than just a play on words. For while a large and expanding middle-income group is a precondition for social progress, the existence of a middle class—with its intellectual, political and social sophistication—is the most reliable sign of any group’s qualitative growth and development.

In the past, the attempt by middle-income Afro-Americans to cultivate the sense of confidence, command and concern for learning that comes from middle-class awareness has led to frustration. At the root of the problem is racial discrimination in housing and education. This tends to stifle the spread of middle-class consciousness by making it difficult for middle-income blacks to escape from lower-income neighborhoods.

Needless to say, one cannot remain in any community very long without being influenced by its values. In the Afro-American community, we have the strange phenomenon of many middle-income residents who, under the influence of lower-income mores, either are unaware of or have completely rejected the more literate values of middle-class society. They read very little, underutilize art and culture beyond an occasional “black book” or “blaxploitation” movie. They might attend a play or an opera, but only if it has black characters or an ethnic theme.

Such generalizations certainly do not apply equally to all middle-income blacks. Nevertheless, the attitude is widespread enough to make it rather hazardous to assume that a black person is middle-class simply because he holds a college degree or has a good-paying job. I have been in homes of university professors—even college presidents—that were devoid of books or serious art.

In some homes where an interest has developed in art, literature and learning, ethnic provincialism—the “black-only” approach—militates against the development of a literate and thoroughly informed perspective on the Afro-American community and its problems.

Such provincialism is all the more hobbling because, of course, the ideas, political struggles and cultural movements in other communities, not to mention other countries, of-ten influence the course of events in the places where we live. How can leaders know about such developments—let alone respond to them properly—if they do not read widely, or if they do not concern themselves with problems and issues outside their immediate sphere of cultural and intellectual interest?

Thus the absence of middle-class values affects the pace and direction of our progress by its influence on the very quality of our leadership.

I realize that many problems beset the black middle class in playing the role it should in the black community. There are, for example, strong undercurrents of anti-middle class sentiments left over from the days when many blacks thought they could pass themselves off as members of that class by wearing wigs and mink stoles, speaking with simulated Anglo-Saxon accents and, worst of all, putting down other blacks whom they imagined to be beneath them. But the mistake of individuals who sought to pawn themselves off as middle-class should not inhibit our understanding of modern Western values and their meaning for us.

Many Afro-Americans today have rejected middle-class values because they find it difficult to identify with white America. However, if Afro-Americans would indulge themselves in the culture and literature of the greater American society, they would realize that all Americans have an “identity crisis”—there are a hell of a lot of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Irish, Poles and even Jews who are not altogether certain who they are. They would also recognize that much of the change—the metamorphosis—now occurring in the broader American community came from us.

While it was Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, who popularized existentialism in Europe and certainly exerted a considerable influence on American thinking, the true roots of American existentialism are to be found in the Afro-American folk tradition—the spirituals, gospels, work songs and poetry of the Afro-American blues idiom.

What I am suggesting is that some blacks’ have taken too narrow a view of their role and significance in American society. I do not advocate a black middle-class awareness without criticism of white middle-class culture traits (black people cannot afford to become snobbish and prejudiced toward other ethnic groups), and yet black militancy went way overboard in renouncing all middle-class values—an error for which we are now paying in the form of leaderless communities and unstable institutions.

The resulting predicament in which we find ourselves poses a tremendous challenge to black leaders. They must not only he bold in their advocacy of middle-class values, but also must guide us out of the “redemptionist” rut we are in. Through their literate and in-formed vigilance they must wage a ceaseless struggle against the return of the great “redeemers” of the 1960s—such as Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown: men who, like the character Rhinehart in my novel “Invisible Man,” think that by breaking the laws of man and God, they have qualified themselves to become saviors of the people.

But my main complaint is that so many Afro-American intellectuals and leaders accepted militant ideas for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. These same writers and intellectuals abandoned rational analysis and turned not only to Africa but to “the East” in their efforts to escape the objective reality of their Americanness.

More and more blacks, apparently, are now beginning to see the black experience as an American experience, and to recognize that it is conditions in this country rather than our “African heritage” which must dictate the values by which we live. They are also corning to realize that such values must he primarily concerned with perfecting our mastery of the cultural and intellectual tools of modern American society.

As this realization sets in, the growth of a large middle-income group of black Americans could emerge as a momentous event in American history. For the first time since slavery, large numbers of Afro-Americans will have the financial ability and leisure time necessary to utilize libraries, bookstores, magazines, theaters, opera houses and other cultural and intellectual apparatus and institutions. The test is whether they do so.

The responsibility of black leadership is to impress upon their constituencies the urgency of taking full advantage of these cultural tools. That is the only way they can develop a middle-class appreciation for literature, learning and the arts—which, in turn, is the only way out of the poverty and degradation of urban ghettoes and into modern American society.

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